This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

July 15, 2010

Learning to Open Doors.

I thought it would be interesting to write a story with only women characters. I thought of my two second cousins on my dad’s side, Jane and Lucy, and about the old wardrobe I inherited when I moved into my last-but-one house. This is the result. It’s on the light side. Jane and Lucy liked it, or so they said.

It was published in Ethereal Gazette Issue 3 in 2006.

Reading time: 35-40 minutes.


----------------------------

“There you go, one mug of tea – hot and strong. So, come on then. What’s this mysterious problem all about?”

Lucy put the drink on the table. Jane, her elder sister, sat listlessly looking at the open kitchen window. It was 10 am on a perfect day in early summer. The sun shone brightly on the fresh new growth and a gentle breeze nudged the leaves of the plants on the window sill. Jane’s demeanour did not, however, reflect the energy and optimism of mid June. Her face was pale and her eyes looked tired.

Half an hour earlier she had called Lucy and asked if she could come over. She had a problem, she said. She didn’t know what to make of it and needed to talk to someone who wouldn’t think she was “nuts.” She had sounded distressed, and that was unlike her. Lucy had always regarded her big sister as tough and worldly.

In reality, Lucy was probably the tougher of the two, but she didn’t see it that way. During their childhood she had been the adventurous one, forever throwing herself carelessly, inquisitively or bloody-mindedly into situations that carried potentially disastrous consequences. Jane had been quieter, more studious and more catholic in her tastes. But there were four years between them and it had always fallen to the elder sibling to step in when the younger one had found herself out of her depth. Jane had rescued her from a good many difficult situations ranging from precarious positions on tree branches to potential beatings by aggrieved schoolmates.

They had both done well academically and Jane had used her education to enter the world of commercial finance. She had risen quickly and become a woman of sophistication, developing a taste for foreign travel, expensive clothes and an upwardly mobile lifestyle. Lucy had gone into the grimy, cut and thrust world of local journalism. She had soon learned to be more circumspect in her actions and to fight her own battles when necessary. But the sense of hero worship that had grown strong under the shelter of Jane’s protective wing had never fully left her. The reversal of roles now being enacted around the table in Lucy’s kitchen felt slightly uncomfortable.

Not that it was the first time she had been called upon to help her sister. She had done it before, but it had usually been in some minor matter like writing a fictitious reference or helping to cover for some romantic indiscretion. This seemed rather deeper and more consequential. Jane looked tired, drawn and genuinely troubled. She took a sip of her tea, composed herself and began the story.

“You remember when we were kids, how I always had a thing about checking every nook and cranny before I went to bed?”

Lucy was momentarily taken aback. She had been expecting the problem to be something at least as serious as a financial difficulty or a health worry. Apart from the occasional romantic trauma, they were what most mattered to her. A childhood bedtime ritual was a bit of a surprise. But she remembered that her sister had been the victim of an obsessional neurosis as a child, even though she hadn’t known at the time that it was a recognised psychological condition, much less the medical term for it.

They had slept in the same room and she had grown used to watching anxiously every night as Jane had gone through her routines of checking all the places where some nameless horror might be hiding: under both beds, behind the drawn curtains, in the extra large draw at the bottom of the dresser, behind the armchair in the corner of the room, and in the wardrobe. She had always paid particular attention to the wardrobe, pushing aside the hanging clothes and lifting out the bags and blankets lying in the bottom, before shutting the door, locking it and giving it a good tug to make sure that it was firm. Then she had gone back to it twice more and tugged the door again, just to be certain.

The ritual had gone on for many years until the family moved house and the girls had been able to have a room each. Lucy had never developed the habit. By then she was twelve years old and possessed of an irrepressible and assertive temperament. She had already come to regard Jane’s curious habit as nothing more than amusing nonsense.

“You don’t still check the wardrobe for bogeymen every night, do you?” she asked incredulously.

“No, of course I don’t,” snapped Jane. “Well, that is, I didn’t. Or rather, I did for a while, but then I didn’t. But now... Oh, for God’s sake, what am I talking about?” She was becoming agitated. “Anyway, it isn’t funny.”

Lucy thought it very funny, but fought back the urge to laugh.

“Sorry,” she said. “Calm down and take it slowly.”

Jane composed herself again.

“OK. From the beginning...

“When Alex and I separated two years ago I found it difficult going to bed on my own. We got married when I was nineteen, so for – what’s that – twelve years, I’d been used to having a man in the room at night. When he left I got nervous again, like I was when I was a kid. I slept with the light on for a couple of weeks. I didn’t have the courage to switch it off. And even then I woke up several times in the middle of the night with a horrible feeling that I was being watched.”

“You never told me that,” said Lucy.

“Well, it’s not the sort of thing you admit to when you’re thirty one, is it? You know what my ego’s like. Anyway, I felt really ashamed of it. Kept telling myself that thirty-something businesswomen don’t sleep with the light on, and that the feeling of being watched was just some paranoid reaction to being on my own. So, one night, I gathered all my courage and forced myself to turn the bedside lamp off. I lay staring into the darkness for God knows how long, but I fell asleep eventually and I was OK after that. Except for one thing. I’d been very good about not looking under the bed and all that stuff – I’d grown out of that, obviously - but, I’ve got this wardrobe...”

“I knew it!” said Lucy, only partially restraining her glee. “I knew the wardrobe would come into it.”

Jane was in no mood for triumphant glee, not even from her sister who also happened to be her best friend.

“Look,” she snapped again. “Will you shut up and let me tell the story. It really isn’t funny you know.”

Lucy apologised again and recomposed her expression into one of proper gravity. Jane paused, looking irritated and a little upset, then continued.

“This wardrobe has one of those magnet things on the door – I don’t know what they’re called.”

“A magnetic catch,” offered the more practical Lucy.

“If you insist, a ‘magnetic catch’. The point is, it’s really stiff. Once it’s closed you need the arms of a gorilla to open it again. And that’s if it had a proper handle, which it hasn’t because it snapped off years ago. There’s a bit of a stump, but that’s all. Alex, being the lazy bastard that he was, never got around to fixing it and I had no intention of breaking my nails trying to grip the stump, so we got into the habit of leaving the door ajar. It never got closed for about four years. I must admit, when he left, that door being ajar did bother me a bit. But it would have been such a pain trying to open it again that I didn’t want to shut it, so I allowed myself the one little indulgence of checking the wardrobe before I went to bed. And please don’t snigger again; being frightened isn’t very nice.”

“I know,” said Lucy. “Go on.”

“Well,” continued her sister, “a week or so ago I decided to finally do something about the damn thing, so I called a joiner to come and fix it for me.”

“You called a joiner, just to fix a handle,” said Lucy disparagingly. “You lazy sod; how much did that cost you?”

“I’m not lazy, I’m just not the practical type,” retorted Jane angrily. “Besides, how much it cost is none of your business. Can I finish this story, or should I just go and sit in the corner and have a nervous breakdown?”

“OK, OK,” said Lucy, suitably abashed. “Won’t say another word.”

Jane put her head into her hands for a few seconds, then looked up and continued.

“He came on Monday and did the job. When I went to bed that night I decided, now that the wardrobe door could be closed again, to make this my reason for getting out of my bad habit. No more checking. ‘Grow up,’ I told myself. It was a bit of a struggle, but I did it. That night I put my clothes on the chair, got into bed and turned the light off. I was feeling quite proud of myself actually, but still a bit nervous, and it took me ages to get to sleep. Then, just as I was finally dropping off, I thought I heard a tapping sound. Two taps to be exact, and it sounded as though they’d come from the direction of the wardrobe. I turned the light on and looked at it. The door was shut and there was no more sound, so I thought I must have dreamt it. I looked at the clock, saw that it was 2.30, turned the light off again and went back to sleep. That was that. Until the next night. It happened again, but with a difference.

“I’d actually gone to sleep that time, when I was woken up again by this sound. Strangely enough, it annoyed me. It interrupted a dream I was having, about meeting this dishy guy from the office on a beach in Barbados - Alex and I went to Barbados on our honeymoon, remember? Anyway, I decided that this noise was coming from inside my own head. I was still a bit drowsy and didn’t even bother to turn the light on - just told myself that it was nothing to worry about and settled myself to go back to sleep. But I felt disturbed, irritated; you know what it’s like when something’s woken you up. I turned over to try and get comfortable and then – oh God, it was horrible – I heard it again. Not very loud, but clear enough. I was wide awake that time and the noise definitely came from the direction of the wardrobe. I sat up in bed, tingling from head to foot, and fumbled for the light switch. The clock said half past two again.”

“The darkest hour is just before dawn,” mumbled Lucy, remembering an old song.

“What?” said Jane.

“Nothing,” said Lucy. “So what did you do?”

“What could I do? I certainly wasn’t going to open the damn door. I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. I sat in the living room drinking it, looking up at the ceiling every so often, half expecting to hear footsteps crossing the floor of my bedroom. I didn’t, of course. The place was quiet as the grave.”

Lucy grinned openly at the word ‘grave,’ until Jane shot a glance at her that would have pierced the side of a battleship, and then continued.

“Eventually I persuaded myself that it was just the wood shrinking, or whatever it does at night. I thought it must be something to do with the door not having been closed for such a long time. I forced myself to go back upstairs and climb back into bed. I read for a bit with the light on and fell asleep. I woke up in the morning still sitting up in bed with the book on the duvet in front of me.”

“So have you opened this wardrobe door yet?” asked Lucy.

“Of course. I had to get my clothes out both mornings. And there was something a bit odd about that too. The first morning – Tuesday – everything was where it should have been. But the second morning, one of my blouses was on the floor of the wardrobe. You know how careful I am about putting them securely on hangers. I couldn’t understand how it could have fallen off.”

“I suppose things can fall off hangers.”

“That’s what I told myself,” said Jane. “I had to, didn’t I? But it’s never happened before. Anyway, to continue. On Wednesday – yesterday - I felt a bit off about this business all day. Couldn’t work properly. I was tired and tense, and I kept dreading the thought of going to bed at night. All evening I kept trying to watch the TV, but I couldn’t settle. I kept nodding off too, in the armchair. Kept waking up feeling uncomfortable. By half past one I was really tired and desperate to go to bed properly. So I forced myself to do it.

“I got undressed and lay down on my back. As soon as I did, I felt wide awake again. I was full of tension; I could feel it in my stomach. I’d left the light on of course, and I kept looking at the clock, getting more and more nervous as it crept around to half past two. I kept looking at the wardrobe door as well. It’s got a full length mirror on it and I kept thinking I could see movement there every time I looked away. When the clock got to twenty five past I sat up again, praying that nothing would happen.”

“And did it?” asked Lucy in the brief pause that ensued.

“Yup. Dead on two thirty. Tap Tap. I went cold all over – just sat there, breathing hard. And then it happened again. Another two taps. I nearly jumped out of my skin that time. Then I started to feel this weird urge to open the door. I remember somebody telling me once that people with a fear of heights get the urge to jump from high places if they go too near the edge. I suppose it was the same thing. I actually got out of bed and walked towards the wardrobe. Can you believe that? I stopped in front of it, trembling with fear and fighting this horrible need to open the door. And then there were some more taps, only faster and louder that time – more urgent. I jumped back and stared at the door. There wasn’t a sound, except for my breathing and a thumping in my head. But then another noise started. It wasn’t exactly a growl, more like a gurgling sound, and I swear it came from inside the wardrobe.”

“My God,” said Lucy. “What did you do?”

“Rushed across the room, grabbed my dressing gown and got out of there. I shut the bedroom door very firmly on the way out. I went and sat on the single bed in the spare room feeling terrified. I sat there listening for hours, or at least it felt like hours. But there was nothing, not a peep. I must have dropped off eventually because I woke up at nine o’clock this morning feeling like death warmed up.”

“And then you rang me.”

“Not quite. I thought I was safe in the daytime. The sun was shining through the window and the fear I’d felt during the night had faded a bit. I was still nervous because of what had happened, but it was less intense in the daylight. I went back into my bedroom to collect some things. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The wardrobe door was open.”

“You’re kidding.”

By now, Lucy was virtually holding her breath.

“Wish I was. And there was a really heavy smell too – sort of sweet and sour combined. I shut the bedroom door again and then phoned you. What the hell am I going to do? I can’t live with that. Whatever it is, it’s learned to open the wardrobe door. What the hell can it be? Is it a ghost, or what?”

“Hang on, hang on,” said Lucy. “I think you’re jumping the gun a bit. Are you sure you couldn’t have left the wardrobe door open yourself?”

“Absolutely,” protested Jane. “I told you, I was staring at it before I left the bedroom and it was definitely shut tight.”

“OK, but I’m sure there’s some perfectly simple explanation. Well, not simple perhaps, but rational anyway.” She smiled reassuringly. “I doubt very much that there’s any ‘something’ that’s learned to open your wardrobe door. I can imagine how spooky it must have been, but you always were a bit of a scaredy cat at night. I’m sure you’re making more of this than there really is. I think I ought to come and have a look at this wardrobe. I’m not as stressed about it as you are. I might be able to find the reason.”

Jane was unconvinced, but she welcomed the idea of there being somebody else in the house and felt better that some attempt was going to be made to address the mystery.

“OK,” she said, “when do you want to go?”

“How much food have you got in?”

“Plenty.”

“OK, how about we drive back to your place and you can cook me a nice lunch while I do the Hercule Poirot bit on your wardrobe?”

“Sounds good.”

“Tell you what, though,” continued Lucy, “I’d better put some overnight things and a change of clothes in a bag, just in case I need to stay and witness this weird wardrobe in action. And if it does go through its routine, you’ll need somebody to hold your hand, won’t you?”

“Ah, my hero,” said Jane in mock admiration. She was beginning to feel better already. “You’re better than any man, Lu”.

“Who needs ‘em? Always said they were a waste of space” Lucy replied, and then went off to prepare her overnight bag.

“Whose car shall we take?” asked Jane as they closed the door to Lucy’s flat and entered the glare of the warm June sunshine.

“Yours,” said Lucy. “It’s posher than mine and you can afford the petrol.”

They drove the ten miles through the gentle Oxfordshire countryside to the village where Jane lived. The fields and hedgerows glowed with the fresh light green of early summer, and the height of the sun ensured that the landscape was almost shadowless. The vivid greens, the rich blue of the sky and the occasional white, cottonball cloud sitting high and motionless looked almost unreal, like a picture from a children’s story book. On such a day as that it was impossible to take seriously any suggestion of the supernatural, and Lucy was quite unconcerned. She had no doubt that there was some boringly physical explanation for what had happened. It was simply a matter of finding it.

They drove through the village and turned into one of two adjoining cul-de-sacs that made up a development of modern detached houses. Jane’s was the one at the bottom, facing up the road. As they approached it Lucy scrutinised the modern, red brick house with its PVC window frames and mock antique fittings, and thought how unlike a haunted house it looked.

“No self respecting ghost would be seen dead in a house like that,” she said.

“Wow. Whose joke book did you get that one from?”

They got out of the car and made for the front door. Once inside, Jane put her keys on the hall table and glanced nervously up the stairs.

“What would you like for lunch?” she asked as she walked down the hall towards the kitchen.

“What have you got?”

“How about pasta and a Bolognese sauce?”

Jane’s Bolognese sauces were legendary among her family and friends.

“Mm, scrummy,” came the reply from the hall.

“It’s a bit early yet, though,” said Jane. “Let’s have some coffee first.”

Lucy was impatient to be about her investigations – Lucy had been born impatient – but she decided that they could wait, and joined her sister in the kitchen. The smell of the fresh Columbian in the cafetiere was persuasion enough and the two women spent the next half an hour talking about the “dishy man” in Jane’s office.

“I’m surprised you didn’t get him out to look at your wardrobe,” said Lucy.

“Don’t know him well enough yet,” said Jane with a knowing look in her eye. “I expect he’ll get to see it soon enough.”

Lucy expected so too.

The coffee finished, Lucy decided it was about time she went to see the offending article of furniture.

“OK,” said Jane. “I’ll start the lunch”.

The door to Jane’s bedroom was firmly shut. It had an old fashioned latch fitting and Lucy pressed the lever down noisily. She walked in to find the bed unmade and the wardrobe door open, just as she had expected from her sister’s description. And there was, indeed, an unusual smell in the air. It was hardly what she would have called ‘heavy,’ but it was noticeable enough and not immediately recognisable. She sniffed a couple of times and agreed with Jane’s description of it as “sweet and sour.” It seemed to combine the light, sweet smell of flowers with the pungent odour of leaf mould. She walked over to the wardrobe and looked inside. The smell was at its strongest in there, and then she noticed an air freshener sitting on one of the storage shelves.

“There’s the smell,” she said confidently to herself. “Rising damp and air freshener. No problem with that one.”

Two rails ran front-to-back either side of the door and she rummaged through the items hanging on them, hoping to find something so close to the wardrobe wall that the merest disturbance or shrinkage might cause it to tap. It was a long shot and nothing fitted the bill. She took out the shoes and boxes lying on the wardrobe floor, but found nothing there that could have explained tappings or gurgling sounds. She moved back and pushed the door shut. The magnetic catch snapped together and it took a surprising amount of effort to prise it apart again. But Lucy realised that it wasn’t just the strength of the magnet that made it difficult. The door itself made a very tight fit with the frame and scraped against it slightly.

“Clue number one,” she said.

She stood back and studied the surrounding area. There was a radiator on the wall to one side, with two surface-mounted water pipes running away from it and along the wall behind the wardrobe.

“Clue number two.”

Lucy was feeling pleased with herself, and stood in thought for a few minutes.

“I reckon that’s it,” she said, and went downstairs with a triumphant air.

“That was quick,” said Jane as Lucy entered the kitchen. “The lunch isn’t quite ready yet. Won’t be long though. You’ve got that smug look of yours. I take it you’ve got a theory.”

“You’ve had that radiator moved,” said Lucy with an air of self satisfaction.

“Which radiator?”

“The one at the side of the wardrobe.”

Jane thought for a moment.

“We did actually, yes. It was in the way of Alex’s layout and he got a plumber in to move it to another wall. But that was years ago. How do you know anyway?”

“The water pipes are mounted on the wall. Modern houses have the central heating built in. The original pipes are chased into the brickwork and plastered over.”

“Oh,” said Jane. “Very impressive. And does that explain my ghost?”

“Probably. One more question: is your central heating still on?”

“It is, yes. I put it on again recently when we had that cold spell. But it’s only on briefly, just to take the chill off the bedroom at night. I keep meaning to turn it off, now that it’s turned warm again, but I keep forgetting.”

“What’s the timer setting?”

“Don’t remember. An hour, I think, late at night. There’s the boiler; have a look.”

Lucy went over to the boiler mounted on the kitchen wall and checked the setting.

“Eleven ’till midnight. That’s got to be it”.

“What has?” asked Jane. “Are you going to explain?”

“OK,” said Lucy. “Listen carefully. I’m sure this is what’s happening. Firstly, I’m certain you’ve got a bit of rising damp. That and your air freshener explains the smell.”

“Rising damp!” exclaimed Jane. “The house is nearly new. And wouldn’t I see it on the walls?”

“You probably will soon. And if the house wasn’t built very well, there could be a break in the damp proof course. Anyway, let’s assume you have. The combination of a damp atmosphere and the present warm weather is causing the wood of the wardrobe to swell, and that’s making the door really tight. Now, at eleven o’clock the central heating comes on and the radiator at the side of the wardrobe gets hot for an hour. That makes the wood swell even more but, this is the important bit, it swells more on the side where the radiator is than on the other. That causes the whole thing to warp slightly and sets up tensions in the wood. Then the heating goes off and the radiator cools down. The wardrobe follows suit and starts to straighten out again. It obviously gets to an optimum point when the stresses cause the tapping sound. Wood does that kind of thing. And it obviously happens at the same time every night because the whole process is tied to the timing of the central heating. What’s more, the twisting is putting a strain on the door and that must get to a point where the stress is causing it to burst open. There; how about that?”

Jane was frowning.

“And the gurgling noise?”

“Just an airlock in the piece of exposed pipework behind the wardrobe.”

Jane looked thoughtful and a little quizzical. She wasn’t entirely convinced. But, who knows, the explanation did seem plausible and she admitted as much.

“Let’s put it to the test,” continued Lucy. “Let’s turn off the heating now and I’ll bet it doesn’t happen tonight.”

“OK,” said Jane. “As I said, I keep meaning to turn it off anyway.”

Lucy pressed the switch and looked pleased with herself. Jane looked less certain, but it made her feel better to have some sort of a rational explanation to hold onto.

“Right, now that I’ve laid your ghost, what shall we do with the rest of the day?”

“Lunch first,” said Jane and began to dish out the spaghetti.

The lunch lived up to expectation and the afternoon was spent on a trip into Abingdon for a spot of window shopping. That is, Lucy went window shopping. Jane had what she called the “samurai spirit.” She had read once that the code of the samurai forbade the sheaving of the sword without drawing blood. Jane’s personal code forbade the entering of a shopping area without spending money. She bought a new pair of shoes.

A relaxing couple of hours followed, soaking up the late afternoon sun in the garden, and then they had dinner. They kept themselves occupied through the evening with a video, two games of Scrabble and lots of childhood reminiscences. Lucy made the occasional mischievous reference to ghostly goings on, but changed tack when Jane became irritated. In fact, Jane’s irritation was mostly playful. She was hardly nervous at all. Having someone else in the house made all the difference and she was feeling quite hopeful that Lucy’s explanation would turn out to be correct. At two o’clock they agreed that it was time to retire and put the theory to the test.

By ten past they were sitting side by side in Jane’s king size bed. Lucy had brought a crossword to wile away the remaining twenty minutes and was soon engrossed. Jane was trying to read a romantic novel but was starting to become anxious again.

Suppose nothing happened that night. It wouldn’t prove that it was all over, would it? Whatever it was might have chosen not to manifest itself that night. Lucy would go home in the morning and she would have to face tomorrow night alone. She continued trying to read but the words were mere ink blots on the page. She looked at the clock. Twenty past. She returned the book to the bedside cabinet and looked at the wardrobe.

“How much?” asked Lucy.

“What?”

“I’ll bet you five pounds that nothing happens.”

Jane wasn’t in the mood for bets and said nothing. Lucy put the crossword aside and removed her reading glasses. They sat in silence until the clock read half past two. Both of them were staring at the wardrobe and the silence remained unbroken. Lucy turned to her sister and smiled. Jane looked back with eyes that were still anxious, but also carried the hope that the mystery had been solved.

And then they heard the faint hint of a rustle. It was hardly discernible, but it was enough to make them turn sharply to look at the wardrobe again. The noise stopped and all went quiet for a minute or so. And then:

Tap Tap.

They both jerked visibly. Lucy had heard the cracking of shrinking wood often enough and it had never sounded like that. They exchanged nervous glances and looked back at the wardrobe.

Tap Tap Tap.

Jane was the first out of bed and making for the door. Lucy climbed out more slowly and stood in front of the wardrobe. She was intrigued as well as alarmed and wanted to see what would happen next. There was another, louder pair of taps and then a gurgling sound. It started deep, rose in pitch and then fell again. Lucy knew that it was not the sound of an airlock in the pipes. She started to back towards the bedroom door which Jane had already opened.

“Come on Lu,” implored her sister. “Let’s get out.”

But Lucy was still intrigued and continued to stare at the wardrobe as she edged backwards. She stopped when she saw the wardrobe door begin to open. It didn’t burst open as she had predicted, but swung outwards slowly and completely. She had a good view of the interior and was momentarily heartened as she realised that there was nothing inside but the clothes she had seen earlier. And then she heard the scrape of coat hanger hooks moving on metal rails and saw the clothes themselves being moved sideways. That was enough.

Jane was already out of the room and Lucy followed quickly, pulling the bedroom door shut and watching the latch click into position. They crossed the landing and hurried into the spare bedroom. Jane slammed the door as soon as Lucy was safely through, and pushed the bolt across. They backed away and listened. There was total silence. After a few minutes, Lucy broke it with an uncharacteristically hesitant voice.

“So much for theories. Thank God it’ll be light soon. That wardrobe will have to go tomorrow. God knows what’s living in there, but you’ll have to get rid of it.”

They sat on the single bed and held hands for mutual comfort. They said nothing and continued to listen. There was more silence; and then they heard a sharp, metallic click. There was no doubting the sound of the latch being pressed down on the door to Jane’s bedroom. Fresh waves of panic gripped them but they were helpless to do anything. More silence followed but it held no comfort. By now the periods of deathly quiet only carried menace and the agonising expectation that another sound would break it eventually. And each new sound would bring the nameless horror ever closer.

They waited. Several minutes passed and they looked at each other. “Could it be over” was the unspoken question in their eyes. The question was premature. They heard a slow creak that Jane knew only too well. She had heard it every time she opened her bedroom door and stepped on a particular floorboard.

They stared at the door in front of them, knowing that something unimaginable would be crossing the landing and would soon be just the other side of it. They looked at the lever on the latch and prayed that it would remain still. It flicked up, suddenly and with a heart-stopping clatter. They both gasped and felt close to uncontrollable panic. It remained in the open position for some time, but then it fell again. Whatever it was that had learned to open doors, it could do nothing about the bolt on the inside.

An agonising hour passed without further incident. And then the silence was broken again, but this time the sound was welcome. The local birds were beginning their dawn chorus and Lucy realised that it was light outside. Jane was taking longer to come out of her state of shock, but she rallied when Lucy rose from the bed to look out of the window.

“Do you think it’s over?” she asked.

“Probably,” replied her sister.

“We can’t know though, can we?”

“No” said Lucy, “but we can’t sit here for the rest of our lives either.”

“Let’s give it another half hour,” said Jane.

Lucy was still feeling shaken herself and agreed readily. The time passed quickly and both women felt anxious at the prospect of opening the door. But Lucy was also becoming restless. She was ready to take her courage in both hands.

“Come on, let’s get on with it.”

She moved over to the door, rousing herself to her accustomed preference for positive action.

“Fortune favours the brave,” she said, then pulled back the bolt aggressively and threw open the door.

The landing was empty and Jane’s door opposite stood open. So did the wardrobe door when they walked tentatively into the bedroom and looked around. Nothing else had been disturbed.

“Got a decent screwdriver?” asked Lucy.

“Why?”

“Because I think we should dismantle that wardrobe right now, throw it into the garden and get somebody to come and collect it and take it to the tip. Agreed?”

Jane agreed.

By six o’clock the wardrobe was lying in pieces on Jane’s lawn and, at nine o’clock, Lucy was running down the entries under Waste Disposal Services in Yellow Pages. The first one she tried wanted to leave the job until Monday. Lucy had a knack for getting her own way and, by lunchtime, the remains of the offending wardrobe were loaded on a van and heading for the municipal tip.

“Feel better?” asked Lucy as they watched the van turn the corner and disappear from view. Jane nodded.

“What the hell was it?” she asked, still incredulous at the events of the previous night.

“Haven’t a clue. Fascinating though, wasn’t it?”

“Not the word I would have used!” said Jane.

“No, suppose not. Not at the time anyway. But you do realise, we don’t know that it was actually malevolent. Bloody frightening, yes, but it could’ve been some perfectly friendly soul and we’ve sent its home off to be broken into little pieces.”

“As far as I’m concerned” said Jane with a show of indignation, “anything that wants to creep out of my wardrobe in the middle of the night and watch me is malevolent by definition. It deserves to be homeless.”

And then she had a chilling thought.

“Oh God,” she said. “You don’t think it might find its way back do you?”

Lucy had no idea. She didn’t know what it was or what it might be capable of. She was no expert in such matters. But she decided that a show of confidence was called for.

“No,” she said with an air of conviction, “of course not. Whatever it was, it belonged to the wardrobe. I’m sure of it. Where did you get it from? It was pretty old wasn’t it?”

“Alex saw it in a second hand shop when we first moved here. I don’t know how old it was, or where it came from. What I don’t understand is why nothing like this ever happened before. It only started when I closed the door again after it had been left open all those years.”

“Perhaps it didn’t know there was a way out before you started to leave the door open. Perhaps it was just resigned to spending its existence in the wardrobe, poor thing. Being able to get out must have opened up a whole new world.”

“Well I don’t want it in mine,” said Jane. “Let’s have some lunch.”

Jane prepared the lunch with her usual aplomb, but was clearly still anxious.

“Do you have to go back today?” she asked while they were eating.

“Why?” asked Lucy, knowing full well what was coming.

“Couldn’t you stay another night? I mean, it’s going to be a bit nerve racking isn’t it, going to bed after what happened last night?”

“You’ve got to do it some time,” said Lucy.

“I know,” said Jane. “But just one more night, just to ease me into it.”

“OK,” agreed her sister. “But let’s make it a transitional arrangement. You sleep in your own bed and I’ll use the spare room. We’re both going to be tired out and in need of a proper night’s sleep.”

Jane was happy with that and felt relieved.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll let you off the five pounds you owe me.”

Lucy was right. By nine o’clock that evening they were both stifling yawns and neither had any interest in games, the television or even conversation. Jane was still nervous, however, and Lucy reassured her.

“If anything happens – and, of course, it won’t – I’m just across the landing.”

“I know,” said Jane, rising from her slumped position in the armchair. “Let’s get on with it.”

So exhausted were they that, by nine thirty, both women were settled in the deepest of untroubled sleep. Waking them would have taken something of the magnitude of a bomb going off under the window. Needless to say, there was no bomb. But there was a scratching noise at two thirty in the morning. It came from the area of blank wall where the wardrobe had stood, and went on for about ten minutes. Jane slept through it. She woke up at nine o’clock, blissfully unaware that the night had been anything other than properly quiet. She felt a glow of satisfaction and went about her morning routines with renewed zest. By lunchtime, the events of the previous week were beginning to seem like a distant memory.

“I’m sure you’ll be OK now. Whatever it was has gone,” said Lucy as she stood by the door of her sister’s car.

Jane had driven her back to her flat early in the afternoon and stayed for coffee before heading home.

“If you do get nervous and want to talk,” she continued, “give me a ring. I don’t suppose I’ll be going to bed all that early. I made up my lost sleep last night.”

“I will,” said Jane. “And thanks.”

She drove home, left the car on the drive and went into the empty house. A feeling of anxiety began to creep into her mind again, despite her sister’s assurances. The confidence she had felt earlier was less certain, now that she was alone. She had expected as much and had already resolved to spend the evening doing jobs around the house to stop herself dwelling on her recent experiences. A combination of cleaning, making dinner, catching up on paperwork and clearing rubbish from a number of drawers and cupboards kept her occupied for several hours.

By ten o’clock she was more than ready for sleep and went upstairs to bed. She told herself that there was nothing to fear any more and that she needed to get over this one barrier to prove it. She did, however, allow herself the luxury of keeping the light on.

“Just for one night,” she thought. “Tomorrow, it’ll be back to normal.”

She was truly tired and fell asleep quickly. And then she woke up again. It was one o’clock and she decided that the light must be disturbing her. She got up, made a cup of tea and rummaged through the books in her living room. She was fully awake and in need of something to make her sleepy. But not the romantic novel in her bedroom; she had come to associate that with unpleasant happenings. Instead, she chose a lightweight book of anecdotes by some famous personality and took it back to bed along with the cup of tea.

An hour later she had read enough and her eyelids were feeling heavy. She discarded the book, lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes. But full sleep eluded her. She turned on her side to face away from the glare of the bedside lamp and lay in a half state between waking and sleeping. And then the scratching started.

She sat upright in bed, a sense of panic rising in her stomach, and instinctively glanced at the clock.

“Oh no, please,” she implored in a desperate whisper.

It was two thirty. She sat rigid and stared at the wall as the scratching continued. And then she realised that it was moving towards the far corner of the room. Her eyes followed its apparent position as it turned and moved slowly along the adjoining wall that faced her bed. It reached the next corner and turned that one too, then moved along the wall until it was behind her dressing table. At that point it stopped. She thought she saw a flicker of movement in the mirror and then she heard a faint tapping in the top drawer. She watched in horror as the drawer slowly began to slide open.

Her sense of panic reached bursting point. She leapt out of bed, rushed out of the room and ran down the stairs. She threw a coat around her shoulders, pushed on a pair of shoes and grabbed her keys off the hall table. Within a minute she was driving away from the house.

Twenty minutes later Lucy was woken by a banging on her outside door. She looked out of the window, saw Jane’s car in the driveway, and hurried downstairs. She opened the door to find her sister, wearing only a nightdress and coat, leaning against the door frame in a distressed state.

“It wasn’t in the wardrobe,” she spluttered between sobs. “It was in the bloody wall. It still is.”

It was an hour before Jane was back to something like her normal self. By then Lucy had been given a full account of the latest happenings, and they had both decided that the house would have to be sold. It was either that or engage an exorcist and even Lucy, with all her local knowledge gleaned as a journalist, had no idea knew where to start looking for one of those.

The immediate plan was that Jane would move into Lucy’s flat temporarily. There was a camp bed in the second bedroom that Lucy used as an office, and Jane was happy enough with that. They would both go to the house the next day and collect as much as they could carry in two cars. On Monday the house would be put on the market and Jane would take some time off work to start looking for another one.

The decision made, both of them felt ready for sleep. Lucy went into the office and unfolded the camp bed, preparing it with the bed linen and pillows that she kept in a trunk. She heard Jane’s voice from the beyond the door.

“I’m going down to the car,” she called. “I’ve just remembered that I left the keys in the ignition.”

Lucy had realised the fact for herself, having just noticed through the window that the driver’s door was open.
“OK, I’ve nearly finished here,” she called back.

She unrolled the duvet onto the bed, straightened it neatly and went out into the hallway. Jane was coming back through the door that led onto the landing. There was a look of alarm on her pale face.

“Did you leave the outside door open when I came in?” she asked.

“Definitely not,” said Lucy.

She might not have locked it, but she remembered having shut it firmly.

“Well it’s open now.”

She stood aside as Lucy walked uncertainly past her onto the landing, and then followed her. They both stood looking over the banister at the door at the foot of the stairs. It stood wide open and they could see the first glimmerings of daylight on the path outside.

“It must be the bloke downstairs. He must have come home late,” said Jane hopefully.

“He’s on holiday” came the quiet reply. “In Greece.”

And then they felt themselves engulfed by the heavy, pungent smell of perfume and leaf mould, and saw the door into Lucy’s flat move slightly, as if blown by a light breeze. The night was still; there was not the slightest hint of air movement. They stood in silence, staring into the apparently empty hallway. Jane shuddered as the first implication hit home: her drive to Lucy’s flat had not been made alone. And then there was the longer term problem to consider. She was the first to speak.

“Where the hell do we go from here?” she asked in a low, hopeless tone.

Lucy continued to stare blankly into her flat and said nothing. For the first time in her life she was speechless.

July 01, 2010

The Passenger.

This is another one of the earlier stories, and so the style is less compressed. It does, however, boast the distinction of being the only one of my stories to have been published twice. It was also accepted a third time, but the publication folded before it got off the press. All in all then, I suppose there must be something half decent about it.

It was first published by Plain Magazine in 2008, and again by an anthology called Candlelight in 2009.

Reading time: approx 45 minutes.

-----------------------------

Scotland is a land of two faces. On a sunny summer’s day the remoter parts provide some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found anywhere in Britain. The lochs and mountains, the rushing rivers and deep gorges, the characterful crofts and Aberdeen Angus cattle are famed throughout the world for their ability to delight the eye and refresh the senses. Publishers of postcards, calendars and coffee table books have lived well off the fat of its land for decades.

On a cold, wet night, however, when a knife edge wind rushes up the glens, tearing at the trees and howling hideously in the chimneys, the difference could not be more marked. Nowhere else do you feel quite such a sense of restless, elemental forces on the prowl. Nowhere else do you feel quite such a conviction that you are being encircled and entrapped by something powerful and unseen, trying the windows and shaking the roof timbers.

I have stayed in a loch-side cottage on such a night. I have heard the knocking on the window, seen inanimate objects tap against the wall, and felt my skin tingle from the growing suspicion that the unknowable wasn’t far away. I was glad I wasn’t alone; and I would have taken some persuading to open the door.

It was on just such a night that fate conspired with elements such as these to place upon me the burden of a most unusual passenger.

* * *

There is a main road in northern Scotland that is as wild and lonely as any you might find anywhere. Running north-west from the Black Isle and Easter Ross, it crosses the high upland country between the Western Highlands and the northern mountains. For mile upon mile the scenery consists of endless bogs, with bare-sided lochs dotted here and there to lend some minor relief to the unremitting brown-green of the stark landscape. Occasional glimpses of solitary mountains on the northern skyline are the only other notable feature, and the drive is a tedious one. I had travelled it twice during previous trips to Scotland, but on the last occasion there wasn’t even the glimpse of a loch or distant mountain to ease the monotony.

It was about ten o’clock on a rough and rainswept night in mid August. I had left Inverness an hour or so earlier and was on my way to Ullapool where I intended to stay overnight before catching the ferry to Stornaway the next day. A light drizzle had started to fall as I set off and a stiff north-easterly had built up to accompany it. The rain had become progressively heavier with the gathering darkness and the wind had strengthened to a full blown gale. By ten o’clock the night was well and truly black, and I was glad indeed to be secure in the warm and waterproof cockpit of a car.

Driving alone on a dark, open road with no streetlights or other reference points is a strangely compelling experience. The visible world consists solely of that picked out by the car headlights and focuses the mind into a narrow tunnel of perception. The endless procession of moving white lines and road edges leads to an almost mesmeric state in which anything other than the tarmac, the verges and the passing trees becomes a distant irrelevance. On the night in question the rocking of the windscreen wipers might have been a hypnotist’s fob watch as they fought the swathes of lashing rain. What little could be seen of the outside world was being swept in and out of clarity with a regular and relentless certainty. It was during one clear interlude that I saw a light coloured shape appear in the distance ahead of me.

My concentration sharpened immediately and I focussed on the looming and ever-brightening image. It soon became clear that, whatever it was, it was on the road. I slowed instinctively and checked my rear view mirror. There was only intense blackness behind me and I felt relieved to be able to pay full attention to the obstruction. Within seconds it took the growing form of a figure dressed in white. Closer still, it became a woman clad in some form of lightweight garment, like a shift or nightdress, which hung in one piece from her shoulders to her knees.

She was walking directly towards me in the middle of the left hand carriageway. Her arms hung limply by her side and she walked slowly but purposefully in a straight line. The sight of such a spectral vision on such a night as that was unnerving, but I was not inclined to be fanciful and soon dismissed the fleeting notion that she was anything other than simple flesh and blood.

My first reaction was astonishment, my second was pity, my third was suspicion. The natural desire to rescue a fellow human being was being tempered by the knowledge that highway robbery was making a comeback. I was also concerned that being alone with a strange young woman could lead me open to obvious accusations and the threat of blackmail. I had heard of such things happening. And it occurred to me that she could be mentally deranged, the prospect of which was the most terrifying of all

Other thoughts sped through my brain too. Could she be a sleepwalker from some nearby croft? Surely the cold rain would have brought her to her senses. Could she have been dumped by an irate boyfriend following an argument? No, I decided, she would look more agitated.

By now I was coming to a halt a matter of yards in front of her. Despite my fears, the prospect of driving around her was out of the question. I had no mobile phone then and I knew that the nearest public telephone could be half an hour’s drive away. She might be in the throes of terminal pneumonia by the time I got the emergency services to her.

She continued to walk towards my car and I could see in the glare of my headlights that the thin, wet garment was all she was wearing. Most of it clung tightly to the contours of her body while the extremities flapped in the wind. At least there was no possibility of her having a concealed weapon, I thought. As she approached the front of the car she veered to her left and walked on, passing the driver’s door and heading into the blackness of the night. Surprised and slightly irritated, I threw caution to the wind and jumped out.

“Excuse me,” I shouted to the darkening figure.

As my voice rang out she halted and stood for a second. Then she turned around slowly and walked back in my direction. She stopped a few feet from me and stared into my face. At least, I assumed she was looking at my face. It was too dark to be certain that she wasn’t merely staring into the space beyond.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked, with a mixture of nervousness and incredulity.

She said nothing, but continued to stand perfectly still, looking straight ahead.

“Are you lost, or what?”

She remained silent. By now, I was wet and cold. I could hardly imagine how she must have been feeling. I decided that this conversation, if it ever became a conversation, should be continued in the warmth of the car. I unlocked the rear door and opened it. Still she stood motionless.

“I think you should get in,” I said.

She didn’t move and I became impatient.

“Please, get in.”

At the direct request she dutifully climbed into the car and sat bolt upright, her hands resting limply on the seat either side of her. I slammed the door shut and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I switched on the interior light to get a better look at her. Her sopping wet hair was long and looked black in the weakly illuminated interior of the car. I could see the water running off her fringe and dripping off the ends of her nose and chin. She displayed no facial expression, and her dark eyes continued to look straight ahead. I judged her to be in her mid to late teens.

I wiped the wetness from my own forehead and prepared to drive on. Then I realised that she was sitting immediately behind me and that made me nervous. Thoughts of wet, ice-cold fingers clasped around my throat took shape in my imagination and I shuddered visibly at the prospect. I turned around and asked her to move over to the other side. Again, she did as I asked, but only moved a little way so that she was sitting in the centre of the rear seat. That would have to do, I thought, but decided to leave the interior light on so as to be aware of any movement on her part. Duly satisfied, I drove off.

There was no conversation. I asked her every question I could think of but she remained quiet and impassive. I glanced frequently at her through the mirror and found myself drawn to her eyes which, although I couldn’t see them clearly in the dim light, appeared uncommonly dark and mesmerised. After a while I realised that I had never seen her blink, despite the cold water that was still dripping from her hair and trickling down her forehead.

Eventually I gave up talking and concentrated on the practical question of what to do with her. I assumed that there would be a police station in Ullapool and the obvious course of action was to take her there. I was anxious to be free of the responsibility and the police are the natural repository for all troublesome burdens. I drove on, still glancing frequently in the mirror, until the sight of her sitting motionless became predictable to the point of being mundane.

It was just before eleven when I entered the outskirts of the town and began to look out for some passer-by who might direct me to the police station. The streets were deserted and I began to consider the prospect of driving around in a methodical pattern until I found it.

To my relief, I saw a patrol car parked a little way ahead and pulled in behind it. Thankfully, it was occupied and I switched off the engine. I turned to my passenger and told her to stay where she was. I would be back shortly, I said. I got out and walked the few paces to the driver’s door.

By now the rain had stopped and the constable in the driving seat had his window half open. I leant forward and explained the circumstances as briefly as I could. He said nothing during the course of my account and, when I had finished, he merely said

“Better take a look then.”

He and his companion got out and walked with me back to my vehicle. All the doors were still shut and I opened the driver’s side rear. The car was empty. Annoyed and a little confused, I spluttered an insistence that I hadn’t made it up. She really had been there.

“Dressed only in a nightie, you say? The tourists get all the luck, don’t they Malcolm?”

He shot a smirk at his companion who chuckled in return. Neither seemed particularly impressed by my story, even when I reached into the car and pointed out to them that the upholstery in the centre of the back seat was sopping wet. Both of them displayed that slow, studied quality of movement and deliberation that one associates with the highlander.

“Must have made her escape while we were talking,” he said.

“Surely we would have heard the car door slam,” I offered.

He shrugged his shoulders and began to write something in his notebook while his companion stood yawning to one side.

“Nothing surprises me in this job any more. We get a lot of strange hitchhikers in these parts at this time of the year. Though I must admit, young women in nighties are not exactly typical. Probably one of those new-age traveller types - had an argument with her boyfriend and he threw her out. She was probably in a state of shock. We’ll take a drive round and see if we can see her; and we’ll put a report in, in case there have been any missing persons. Where are you staying?”

I gave him the name of the hotel near the ferry terminal into which I had booked that morning. He obliged me with directions and assured me that they would let me know if they found anything. I climbed back into my car and followed the policeman’s route, checking my mirror occasionally and half expecting to see my passenger reappear.

She didn’t. The whole episode was already taking on the quality of a dream and I began to wonder whether I had witnessed one of those roadside ghosts I had read about. When I parked the car outside the hotel I felt the back seat again. It was still wet. I decided that ghosts don’t drip water and settled upon the policeman’s explanation as the most likely one.

I gathered my luggage and went into the hotel. It was a comfortable old building, probably Victorian, which had escaped any significant degree of modernisation. There was a smell of old wood, leather and fresh-cut flowers in the air, and I was greeted by a prim and pleasant middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Mrs Campbell. She was the owner of the establishment, jointly with her husband.

We completed the usual formalities and she proceeded to conduct me towards my room. As we crossed the lobby I noticed a half open door in the corner, obviously leading to the owners’ private apartments. An elderly woman with a shock of long, grey hair stood motionless a little way inside. Her hands were held clasped in front of her skirt and her face carried a frown. She was staring at me intensely and I fancied that her eyes carried the desire to communicate. Given the strange happenings of the previous hour, I thought I was probably over-reacting and looked away as my guide began to climb the thinly carpeted, creaky staircase.

“Don’t mind mother,” said Mrs Campbell with an affable smile, “she’s getting a wee bit senile. She’s quite harmless.”

My room was small and unprepossessing, but did have the benefit of an en suite bathroom consisting of a lavatory, washbasin and pedestal shower. I was glad of the shower after my long drive and was soon settled under a welcoming hot spray. As I relaxed, my thoughts turned again to the mysterious young woman. I wondered whether the police had found her yet. Surely she couldn’t have got far dressed the way she was. Indeed she hadn’t.

A mirror hung over the washbasin, situated on the wall that faced the shower. It was placed half way between the cubicle and the door to the bedroom which I had left open, and reflected a comprehensive view of the doorway and the room beyond. I caught sight of a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked sharply at the glass.

There, standing just inside the bedroom and framed eerily by the doorway, was my erstwhile passenger. She was still dressed in the knee-length garment and stood perfectly still, with her hands hanging limply by her side and looking directly at me through the mirror. Her fixed and silent stare was as expressionless as before.

A creeping sense of shock and terror crept across my shoulders, and I spent the next few seconds staring back. Then I came to my senses. I grabbed the towel that I had put on a nearby chair, wrapped it around my middle and walked quickly towards the door. I looked around it nervously, hoping desperately that the vision was no more than a figment of my overwrought imagination.

The bedroom was empty. The only item that was not a fixture or fitting was my suitcase that stood open on the bed where I had left it. I felt the carpet where I estimated she had been standing and there was some dampness there. I reasoned that it had probably come off my own wet body, as there was a minor trail running back across the floor and into the bathroom.

It wasn’t difficult to tell myself that I was tired and prey to a fruitful imagination. I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, and decided that the prospect of re-entering the shower was too uncomfortable. I returned to the bathroom and switched it off, taking care to face the door as I did so. The thought of some white-clad apparition appearing behind me filled my mind and chilled my blood. I walked back into the bedroom drying myself, then donned fresh underwear and t-shirt in preparation for going to bed.

Going to bed; that was a difficult prospect to contemplate. However much I told myself that the young woman’s second appearance was no more than a product of my overtaxed imagination, the memory of her image in the mirror was too potent to push aside so easily.

I busied myself for as long as I could with simple routines, putting off the thought of that final moment when I would have to settle into bed and switch off the light. I cleaned my teeth - consciously avoiding the mirror on the wall - combed my hair, and took some fresh clothes out of my suitcase ready for the morning. The moment arrived when there was nothing left to do. I made sure that the bedroom door was locked, climbed into bed and sat there for a while with the light on.

I felt silly and cowardly as I sat upright, trying to drum up the necessary courage to switch off the light and go to sleep. Eventually I decided to do it in stages. I got back out of bed and opened the curtains covering the single window situated on the opposite wall. I climbed back in and forced myself to press the switch on the lamp.

The darkness was intense for a few seconds, but abated as my eyes adjusted to the light coming from the street. I could see the details of the room clearly enough to feel assured that nothing could approach me unseen. But I still lay for a while, staring at the door and feeling that same prickle of nervous apprehension creeping across my shoulders. Eventually I drifted into sleep.

I started dreaming immediately. I saw my passenger standing in a bleak, open landscape, still dressed in the familiar white shift but otherwise looking much more alive. Her eyes were full of expression and seemed to be begging me to do something. Her arms were held out towards me and her mouth was moving as though she was trying to speak. I asked her what she wanted, but no sound came from her lips. And there were dark shapes moving around her, constantly changing and so indistinct as to be effectively formless. They seemed to be holding her and pulling her away from me.

How long the dream continued I couldn’t tell. Time has no reality in dreams. It seemed to go on interminably until the shapes pulled her underground and I was left standing alone among the dark heather that shivered incessantly in the keen wind. I felt the force of it on my body, and my left ear was stinging from the sharpness of its icy blast. Then I found myself drifting back into consciousness, aware of an uncomfortable coldness down my left side.

I assumed that the window must be open and that I was being troubled by a cold draught. I stretched out my left hand to make sure that the bedclothes were tucked in on that side. My hand touched the cold, clammy wetness of sodden fabric. And, beyond that, there was something more solid. I turned sharply and looked directly into the pallid face of my travelling companion. She was lying next to me on her back, with her face turned towards me on the pillow. Her eyes were inches from my own.

For a few seconds – or was it longer, I don’t know - any possibility of movement on my part was impossible. My limbs were frozen as I stared into the lifeless eyes of the young woman. Then an uncontrollable cry surged from my lips, borne of the most intense fear and panic. I leapt out of bed and rushed across the room to where I knew the light switch was located. After some agonising fumbling, I found it and the room was flooded with bright light from the shaded bulb on the ceiling. I looked back at the bed, eyes wide with fearful expectation. It was empty.

I stood for a while, breathing heavily and looking around the room to be sure that the apparition really had gone. I looked in the bathroom, under the bed, and in the wardrobe. There was nowhere else big enough to conceal a person. I sank into the armchair on which I had earlier placed my change of clothes, breathing hard and shaking visibly. After a while a sense of reason began to return. I supposed that the figure in the bed had been an extension of my dream and began to feel less nervous in the comforting light of a hundred watt bulb.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked the bed itself. I looked at it from my position in the armchair. The pillow did look to have patches of wetness on it. No doubt it was just a trick of the light, I told myself. I got up nervously, walked over to the bed and threw back the covers. The left hand side was wet from top to bottom.

There was no question of getting back under those covers. I got dressed and took out a cigarette. There was a no smoking policy in the hotel, but this was no time to be following rules. I opened the window and looked out onto the street, drawing long on the cigarette and flicking the ash towards the pavement below.

I looked at my watch. It was 4.30 and I knew that I would have an hour or more to wait before the first glimmers of daylight consigned this terrifying night to history. The hour passed slowly and I smoked several more cigarettes, dividing my time between the window and the armchair.

Eventually I heard the sound of chinking crockery coming from somewhere beneath me. I realised that the kitchen must be located there and that I would soon be able to take breakfast and escape.

But could I escape? Whoever the lady was, she seemed to have latched onto me, and I faced the possibility that she would continue to haunt my nights until I could find some sort of resolution. The idea was daunting and I hoped that I would leave her behind when I left her territory. At 7.30 I went down to breakfast.

I was still feeling agitated and bewildered, and my mood was not helped by the young woman who took my order. She was slim and pretty with long dark hair and a pale complexion. I shivered inwardly at being reminded of my passenger. And then I saw the same old lady that I had seen the night before. She was standing in the doorway of the dining room, clearly looking at me with some intensity and an expression of concern.

I was becoming a little weary of the sight of women giving me their undivided attention from the framework of doorways. The image is a little unnerving at the best of times, and my present situation could hardly be so described. Nevertheless, I smiled at her politely, hoping she would go away when she realised that I had seen her. She didn’t. Instead she came into the room and walked directly to my table. Her expression seemed all the more intense when seen at close quarters and in the context of a face lined with the experience of seven or eight decades.

“May I speak to you for a moment?” she asked.

Her voice carried the gentle lilt of an old fashioned highlander.

“Of course,” I replied, successfully hiding an inner reluctance. “Do have a seat.”

She accepted the offer, never taking her eyes from mine.

“I am Mrs McDonald, Mrs Campbell’s mother,” she began hesitatingly. “You saw me in the lobby last night when you booked in.”

I nodded politely and she continued.

“What I am going to say will seem a little strange to you.”

I couldn’t help mumbling the obvious reply.

“I doubt it, not after last night”.

It was meant to be ironic and said by way of a passing remark, but the old lady’s expression altered appreciably on hearing it and showed a visible degree of relief.

“You will know, then, that you brought somebody in with you?”

I was unsure whether to feel relieved or dismayed and said nothing for a few seconds. For some reason I felt guarded, and restricted my reply to “Did I?”

“You did,” she said.

There was another brief silence and I decided that openness was the only sensible policy.

“Could you see her then?” I asked.

“I could, as plainly as I see you. I was born a McRae and raised in the shadow of the Seven Sisters. All the women in my family have the sight.”

I had heard of “the sight;” highland women are reputed to be very psychic.

“What did you see?”

She smiled slightly.

“You are testing me,” she said with a hint of gentle accusation. “You know what I saw. A pale young lassie with long black hair, dressed in a white shift that was wet from being out in the rain. She followed your every movement while you were booking in and went upstairs with you. I felt her presence all night and couldn’t sleep. In the early hours I heard a cry and footsteps running across the floor. I thought of coming to you then, but I knew that you were in no danger. She means you no harm.”

By now, any doubts I had were removed. I felt massively relieved to find someone with obvious knowledge in these matters to share my experience.

“Tell me how you met her,” continued the old woman.

I started to give her a brief description of the circumstances, but she stopped me.

“I need everything,” she said. “Every single little fact, however trivial it might seem.”

There was a lull in the conversation as the waitress placed a plate of scrambled eggs and toast before me. She asked the old lady if she wanted anything and was answered with a brief shake of the head. I continued without starting my breakfast, giving her every single fact and circumstance as well as I could remember them. When I had finished, the old lady sat looking at the table for a while.

“Is she a ghost?” I asked.

“No,” replied the old lady, “she is not a ghost. She is something infinitely more sad and difficult to deal with. Ghosts are able to move on and can be persuaded to do so with the right approach. She has no such option.”

That worried me. It sounded as though I might be shackled forever to a watery wraith that is given to making impromptu and spine tingling appearances several times a day. I was reminded of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and my dismay was briefly mixed with some small degree of ironic humour. The old lady looked into my eyes again.

“Do you believe in fairies?” she asked, with a directness that took me by surprise.

Dismay and ironic humour were now joined by incredulity. Ghosts I could accept, but fairies were surely the stuff of childhood fantasy.

“Does anybody?” I replied.

She rocked back on her chair and uttered a scornful chuckle.

“Not these days. Everyone is so ‘rational’ now. They all believe the scientists when they say that nothing exists if it cannot be studied and measured in their laboratories. Of course they exist. There are worlds parallel with ours in which all sorts of beings exist. Brownies and kelpies – or fairies, elves and goblins as you have it in English – live in some of those worlds, and they are more aware of us than we are of them. Sometimes, in the more remote areas, they will steal a human baby and replace it with some stunted and ugly offspring of their own. The stolen child is taken back to their land and brought up as one of them. It is a terrible tragedy.”

I remained circumspect during the explanation, not sure that I was prepared to believe any of it. I politely observed that such an occurrence must be terribly upsetting for the parents.

“The tragedy is much more the child’s,” said Mrs McDonald

“Why?”

“Because the fairy folk have no souls. We humans can aspire to spiritual growth, go the heaven if you like - though it’s not as simple as that, whatever the Christian ministers tell you. We live for a while, then discard our earthly bodies and call it death. Then we come back and live again; and do this over and over again until we’re ready to move on to another stage.

“They live forever. They have no death as we understand it. But that means they cannot progress, and any human child living in their world is under the same curse. Your lassie is just such an unfortunate and is obviously trying to get back to her own world. She has apparently learned to control the state of her body so that, for short periods, she can appear physically again. But it takes a great effort and uses all her concentration. That’s why she appears to be in a trance.

“When she first heard your voice she was able to latch onto you, but could then only respond to direct orders. When you saw her in your dream, you were seeing her ‘normal’ self and she was begging you to help her come back.”

This was heady stuff and difficult to take in. But I had to take it further.

“And can I bring her back?” I asked.

“It’s not as simple as that. She can only come back if those who are holding her allow it. It would be very difficult to persuade them to do that and you wouldn’t know where to start approaching them. Even I would find it difficult. I have talked to the little folk often, but never about that. It is not a fit subject for conversation and they are very reticent. I could try, of course.

“But there is a much bigger question. Do you realise what would happen if we did manage to bring her back? A young woman suddenly appearing in a world that has to know everything about you from your date of birth to the size of your shoes? They have us tagged like the beasts in the field, with certificates of this and certificates of that, centralized records and social security numbers.

“We couldn’t keep her hidden forever. Eventually the police would get involved and they would presume that she’d lost her memory or something and turn her over to the medical people. They might decide that she had lost her mind and send her to some institution. Then the newspapers would hear about it, and they would start prodding and prying and making her life a misery.

“Do you want to bring an innocent and unsuspecting young lassie into such a world? Where she is at the moment she has a comfortable life with no pain or fear of death. The only real point in getting her back would be so that she could die and feel all the sorrows and pains along the way.”

Mrs McDonald fell silent and I mused for a while on what she had said. Her daughter’s assessment of her as “senile” was clearly wide of the mark. Perhaps Mrs Campbell was a good citizen of the modern world and “senile” was a euphemism for “nutty.” That wasn’t my view. Old Mrs McDonald’s directness and matter-of-fact manner had convinced me and I offered the logical answer to her question.

“Surely,” I said “that’s the point, isn’t it? How could we, in all conscience, knowingly stand back and allow a human being to remain trapped in a world to which she doesn’t belong, however comfortable. If what you say is true, wouldn’t we be denying her soul its most fundamental right?”

Mrs McDonald’s smile carried a hint of sadness and uncertainty.

“You learn quickly,” she said. “But how can we know that she realises what she is asking? I doubt she has seen much of cities and hospitals and police stations.”

A thought struck me.

“I take it she isn’t here at the moment?”

“No,” said the old woman. “Their vibrations are much lower than ours. Daylight is too strong for them. That’s why they are usually seen at twilight and at night.”

“So the likelihood is that she will come back tonight. Couldn’t you talk to her and explain everything?”

“No. You have seen the state she’s in when she takes physical form and, even when she drops it and only I can see her, she will be too weak and confused to understand the workings of modern civilization. Heaven knows, I find it difficult enough most of the time.

“We must take the responsibility upon ourselves, or rather you must. It’s you she has latched onto. You could, of course, escape her by carrying on with your ferry trip. She won’t follow you over water, and she will be gone by the time you come back.”

“How did you know I was planning a ferry trip?” I asked her.

How silly of me. Of course, she had “the sight.”

“My daughter told me after you had gone to your room last night. I enquired after you.”

Mrs McDonald added honesty to her list of credentials.

I didn’t have to think long about the dilemma. The young woman was crying out to me to help her and had obviously put great effort into her ability to materialise. Rightly or wrongly, the romantic in me took precedence over the pragmatic and I knew there was no contest.

“We have to try,” I said.

“Very well,” said Mrs McDonald with some reluctance.

She fell silent for a while, obviously thinking. I felt that I shouldn’t interrupt but waited for her to speak again.

“Do you have anything made of gold?”

“Gold? Why gold?”

“Because we will have to offer something valuable to compensate them for giving her back, and the little folk are very fond of gold.”

She looked at my right hand. I was wearing a signet ring that my mother had given to me for my twenty first birthday. I was very attached to it and said so.

“Then it is all the more valuable,” said the old lady.

I prised it off with some difficulty and handed it to her. I asked her what form the exchange would take. Could it be done in the privacy of the hotel?

“Good heavens, no. We must go to the place from which she was taken.”

My heart sank. How on earth could we know that?

“It’s not so difficult,” said the old woman. “She would have appeared at the same place where she entered the other world. That is where the gateway is. You told me that you met her about half way between here and Inverness. There is a ruined croft some way along an old track about there. It’s the only one for miles around and there is a well known fairy rath nearby. I have been there before and felt the presence of the gateway between this world and theirs. Besides, I kept seeing it over and over again during the night. I have no doubt that is the place.”

I had no option but to trust her judgement and asked what I should do next.

“Nothing for the time being. Be in the lobby at...” She paused, obviously calculating something. “...six thirty. Be dressed for the outdoors. Do you have a second coat?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“In case we are successful,” she replied, as though the answer should have been obvious.

She got up and walked away, leaving me with an untouched breakfast that was now cold. The waitress came over when she saw Mrs McDonald leave.

“Would you like another breakfast?”

“No thanks.” I wasn’t hungry.

“Some coffee then?”

“OK. Please.”

She brought a pot and I sat for some time looking out of the window, musing on the incredible events of the previous twelve hours. I helped myself to two cups of coffee in quick succession and then became aware that the waitress was anxious for me to leave so that she could tidy the room. I wanted a cigarette anyway. I returned to my room to collect the packet and went out for a walk.

I remember little of what I did that day. I know I wandered aimlessly around, taking some superficial interest in the shop displays and the ferries coming and going. I had a sandwich in a pub at midday, but it was more out of habit than necessity. I was in an almost dreamlike state myself, and I do remember thinking that there were those who might describe me as being “away with the fairies.” More ironic amusement.

I was, of course, impatient for six thirty to come around, although the thrill of excitement was mixed with a natural fear of dabbling with dark forces. And the realisation that the mission was by no means guaranteed to succeed caused me some anxiety.

I had calculated that the reason for leaving at six thirty was that an hour’s drive to the appointed spot would still leave a little daylight. How much would depend on the state of the sky. Down at sea level it was moderately bright, but I knew that it could be different up on higher ground. A dense cloud cover would see the darkness fall more quickly.

By five o’clock I was thoroughly bored with the limited scenery of the town and my anxiety was naturally increasing. I returned to the hotel and went up to my room. On the way I passed Mrs Campbell in the lobby and her quizzical look made it obvious that she knew something was going on. I doubted that she knew the full story, and I said nothing apart from exchanging a polite greeting.

I sat in my room until 6.15, remembering vividly the events of the previous night. I wondered how the chambermaid had reacted to the wet sheets, and whether that had some bearing on Mrs Campbell’s strange look. The recollection of the young woman’s appearances was strong and I shuddered with an echo of the terror I had felt at finding her lying next to me. It made me all the more certain that our intended course was the right one. I pulled on my stout walking shoes and my waterproof coat and went down to the lobby.

Mrs McDonald was already there, engaged in earnest and slightly agitated conversation with her daughter. They were speaking too quietly for me to catch the detail, but the younger woman’s face carried a look that I translated as shock and annoyance, and her posture conveyed the same message. I had the impression that she had been prepared for some possibility that was disagreeable to her. She walked away sharply as I approached.

Mrs McDonald picked up a large carrier bag, nodded to me and led the way to the door. We were soon settled in the car and heading off on the main road towards Inverness.

As we drove I tried to make conversation a couple of times. It soon became clear that the old woman wanted silence and I had to be content to respect the fact. She did turn her head towards me in a sudden and disarming manner occasionally, taking a sharp breath and staring at me intensely with her piercing blue eyes. I felt something like a mild electric shock every time she did so, but I tried to ignore it. And then she said

“They know we’re coming.”

What was that all about? I had no idea, but I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous. She did answer my next question.

“What are the fairies like?”

“They are like us,” she said, “only more extreme. The nice ones are cheery and helpful, but some are more hideous than anything you will find in this world.”

The journey continued in silence.

We climbed rapidly into the country of wild heath and scattered lochs, and the sky darkened appreciably. The cloud cover was becoming heavier, and the odd lonely tree indicated that the wind was getting stronger. Eventually the old lady told me to slow down and leaned forward in her seat, squinting at the land to the right of the road.

“There,” she said triumphantly, and pointed to a track that led off across the heath. “Take that road.”

Road? It might have been a “road” in the days of horse-drawn vehicles, but I was reluctant to take a modern car down it. I didn’t argue but did as I was told and drove slowly for about a mile, avoiding the humps and potholes as best I could.

The track led us to the remains of a croft, standing forlorn amid a harsh, uncompromising landscape. As we approached I could see that the roof was gone but the outer walls seemed largely intact. A group of smaller walls formed a sheiling, but there was nothing else and I found it hard to believe that people had lived and farmed there, probably for centuries.

“This is the place,” said Mrs McDonald. “Take the car as near as you can and turn it around to face back to the road - and leave the doors unlocked.”

I did as I was told and turned off the engine. We got out of the car, Mrs McDonald with a bustling intensity of purpose and me feeling slightly bewildered and wondering what I should do next. I looked at the gaunt shape of the roofless and windowless croft standing starkly against the sky. It put me in mind of a skeleton, and I began to feel afraid.

The land was desolate, the wind was gusting strongly in my face, and the grey clouds that scudded overhead carried a brooding menace. But that wasn’t the source of my fear. There was something else. An irrational but intense feeling of depression and anxiety was closing in on me. I felt that I was being encircled by some power or energy that did not mean me well.

“Come over here,” said the old lady, who was kneeling on the coarse grass in front of the croft. “I need your physical strength to draw on.”

I felt that my physical strength was draining rapidly already, but did as she ordered and knelt beside her. Her hands were folded on her lap and her eyes were closed. She began to breathe more slowly and then started mumbling low words in a language that I didn’t recognise, but which I assumed to be Gaelic.

My depression increased with each passing minute and every mysterious phrase, until it approached the level of despair. I felt a massive urge to run back to the car and drive away at high speed. I thought I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, and then another one. I looked towards them but saw nothing. And then more movements, sometimes three or four at a time, but always outside the centre of my vision. Were these the shapes I had seen in my dream?

All the time the wind was becoming stronger and howling angrily through the ruins of the building. I wondered how much longer my nerve would hold and began to look agitatedly in all directions. I knew that I was approaching a state of panic, but also that it was vital for me to remain in position. It was with both shock and relief that I saw Mrs McDonald suddenly lift her hands to her head and heard her utter a final cry. She dropped her hands back to her lap and said

“He’ll do it. There’s no time to lose.”

“Who’ll do what exactly?” I stuttered, feeling weak, miserable and exhausted, but with a sense of triumphant expectation now shoring up my spirits.

She didn’t answer me but got up, taking my signet ring from her pocket, and walked quickly towards the croft. I had no desire to be left alone in that accursed place and followed her as fast as my weakened legs would allow.

“I have talked to the one who is their leader – and a more hideous creature I have never seen before and never want to see again - and he has agreed to exchange the lassie for your gold ring. When one of his kind makes a bargain he has to keep to it. It’s a law to them. But the others don’t, so we have to get her away as quickly as possible.”

We entered the hole in the wall where a door had once hung, and Mrs McDonald looked around. Nature had largely reclaimed the inside of the building. Coarse grass grew up between the cracks in the old floor and straggly plants had colonised various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.

“To the left of the fireplace, he said. That’s where she was taken from.”

“Suppose he was lying,” I offered.

“They don’t lie. That’s another law. Trickery is their way, not outright lying.”

She put the gold ring on the floor to the left of the chimney breast and walked out again.

“Now we must wait,” she said.

She reached into the carrier bag that she had brought with her and took out a woollen blanket which she laid over her arm. Then she faced the doorway and stood still.

We stood in the gathering gloom of a miserable, cold twilight for ten or fifteen minutes and I noticed that the old lady was wringing her hands with anxiety. Occasionally she would let out an expression of frustration but she never moved from the spot in front of the door. The wind continued to moan with sullen aggression and I continued to look around the darkening heath nervously.

And then a figure appeared in the doorway. I took a sharp, involuntary breath and my eyes widened. A powerful mixture of joy, amazement and triumph rose up through my chest and settled as a painful knot of raw emotion in my throat. My passenger of the previous night stood there, naked. She had been returned as she had been taken, with nothing. The snowy whiteness of her skin seemed almost luminous in the gloom of the grey twilight and she stepped forward slowly.

As much as I wanted to laugh hysterically and cry at the same time, I was reminded of the need for urgent action when I saw Mrs McDonald hurry forward. I followed instinctively. The blanket was wrapped quickly around the young woman’s shoulders and we helped her back to the car where I bundled her into the back seat. I had no fear of her sitting behind me this time. Mrs McDonald was getting into the other side as I slammed the door shut.

“Drive away quickly,” said the old lady as I climbed into the driver’s seat.

The instruction was unnecessary. I understood the necessity for speed, but also knew that I had to be careful not to put a wheel into some deep pothole and become stuck.

The mile-long drive to the main road seemed to take forever. The wind was now blowing constantly at storm force and seemed to be trying to arrest the car’s progress like some invisible hand. It was almost dark and I was sure that several of the violent bumps that vibrated through the car were caused by something other than the state of the track. At one point the car rocked heavily from side to side, but I drove on and eventually reached the welcome site of tarmac. Once I was on its familiar, modern surface I relaxed.

The drive back to Ullapool was uneventful and no-one said anything. I felt drained almost to the point of exhaustion and it was all I could do to keep the car safely on the road and make reasonable speed. I glanced often into the rear view mirror to see the young woman cradled in Mrs McDonald’s arms and crying quietly.

When we arrived at the hotel I drove the car around to the rear and parked in the private car park, close to the back door. I helped to guide the young woman up the steps and into the kitchen where the old lady sat her down on a chair and began talking to her gently in Gaelic. Then she went to the sink and returned with a glass of water, explaining to me that it would be necessary to accustom her body to physical food gradually.

I stared at the pitiful form leaning heavily on the refectory table as she sipped the water. I was struck by the contrast between the reddened rims of her eyes and the ghostly white pallor of the rest of her face. She looked up at me and said something in her native language. Her voice was weak and indistinct. I looked at Mrs McDonald.

“She says ‘thank you’.”

I nodded and the tears began to well in my own eyes. The old lady continued.

“You must go to bed now. You are exhausted and you will have no dreams tonight. There is a lot to do and you would only be in the way.”

At first I found such a direct order insulting. I had played my part too, I thought, and I didn’t want to leave the young woman. I felt strongly attached to her and concerned for her welfare. But Mrs McDonald was right. I was exhausted and there was probably nothing more I could do.

I said goodnight and made my way through the lobby and up to my room. The climb was remarkably tiring and I couldn’t be bothered to undress. I fell onto the bed and into asleep almost in the same instant.

The following morning I awoke at about seven, feeling anxious and excited. I changed my clothes quickly and went downstairs, keenly anticipating the prospect of seeing Mrs McDonald and our newly reclaimed soul. I had so many questions. Who was she? Did she remember her name? How long ago had she been taken? Did she remember her time in the other world, and what was it like? How did she view the prospect of life back among the humans? etc., etc., etc.

Mrs Campbell was behind the desk as I came downstairs and the way she looked at me did not bode well for an affable conversation. I went over to her anyway.

“Is your mother about?” I asked with a hint of nervous hesitation.

“No, she is not,” replied Mrs Campbell curtly. “But she left this for you.”

She handed me a small, sealed envelope and went back to writing in the hotel bookings diary.

“Thank you,” I said and made my way to the dining room.

This time I was hungry. I sat down and used a table knife to open the letter. There was one small sheet of ruled paper that had a few lines written on it in small, neat handwriting. It said:

Dear Sir

I am sorry, I never learned your name. Brigit - for that is the name we have chosen for her - and I have gone away, and I do not know when we shall be back. We are both grateful to you, but what we have to do will be difficult and the fewer people who are involved the better. You should continue your journey now. There is nothing more you can do. You will not see us again and I can assure you it is better that way.
 

Yours faithfully

Eileen McDonald
.

This was horribly disappointing. All the questions, all the effort, all the risk, all the fear and excitement - all over in thirty six hours. My initial reaction was to ignore the letter and stay put until the duo made their return.

I munched a slice of toast without tasting it, and then left the dining room to storm out of the hotel. My disappointment had turned to feelings of anger and frustration. I spent a desultory day much like the previous one, making frequent visits to tedious tea shops and musing on recent events and the old lady’s letter.

Eventually I realised that she was right. Assimilating Brigit into modern society would be a difficult job requiring patience, sensitivity and fine judgement. Mrs McDonald had the time, the wisdom and the wise woman’s touch. I was a mere male with a life back home.

I returned, somewhat crestfallen, to the small hotel that had been the setting for so much excitement, so much fear and so much learning. I collected my things and went down to the lobby. There was no one about and I had the impression that Mrs Campbell would have no wish to see me off. I left a cheque for what I knew to be the charge for two night’s bed and breakfast, and left.

I had no heart to continue my holiday. How could I match the events of the last two days? I drove back towards Inverness until I reached the Corrieshalloch Gorge. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether I should continue on the Inverness road and take another look at the old croft. I decided against it. If I was to put my recent adventure behind me, it seemed better that I should start now. I turned right and took the west coast road through Torridon.

I drove for what was left of the day and broke my journey with an overnight stop at a hotel near Loch Lomond. Early the next morning I was on the road again and arrived home at lunchtime.

For the next few days I pondered the fate of the two women whom I had caused to be thrown together in such strange circumstances. I had great faith in Mrs McDonald, but the permutation of problems and possibilities seemed endless. Would she take Brigit to the police and set in motion a complex train of events that could go almost anywhere? Would she try to keep her hidden by settling her in a remote, Gaelic-speaking community somewhere? Would the locals accept a stranger coming into their midst, and could it be a practicable solution in the long term anyway?

For all my well-intentioned decision to consign the episode to history, I knew that I would always be haunted by the need to know what happened. I decided that I would drive back to Ullapool in a month or two’s time to find out. Mrs McDonald would probably object, but I felt I had certain rights in the matter.

And then, in the evening of the third or fourth day, I was flicking through the Teletext news pages when my eye was caught by a headline that read:

Bodies found in missing person hunt.

Such headlines are common enough on Teletext, but I felt a sense of understandable foreboding about this one. I dialled the page and read

Bodies found in Highland search

Police in northern Scotland, searching for an elderly woman reported missing from Ullapool recently, have confirmed that the bodies of two women have been found at the foot of nearby Corrieshalloch Gorge.

One of the bodies is thought to be that of the missing woman. The identity of the second body, that of a young woman in her late teens, remains a mystery. Next of kin have yet to be informed.


I sat in shock and disbelief for a while. I tried to tell myself that the two bodies could be unconnected with the two women who had sat in the back seat of my car a few days earlier. Then I remembered Mrs McDonald’s words and knew the truth of it.

“The only real point in getting her back would be so that she could die and feel all the sorrows and pains along the way.”

It seemed she had courted the courage of her convictions and effected the only practicable solution. My sense of guilt and sadness was profound. I felt responsible for the deaths of two women. One, a dear and wise old lady who, though she probably had little time left on this earth, would still be a loss to a world losing its way. The other, a beautiful young woman still approaching her prime, who might have had a happy and fruitful life in different circumstances. No amount of logic and rational justification would take away the knot of remorse that gripped my stomach.

But my respect for the old lady’s courage was uppermost. In taking what she had obviously decided was the right and proper course, she had at least enabled the tragic young woman to re-establish her birthright and avoid the “sorrows and pains along the way.” I can only hope that the sudden upsurge in mine will dwindle eventually.

About Me

My photo
I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



Followers